The buzzer rang and state Del. Kristen Amundsen (D-44) watched the students drain out of the auditorium. She smiled brightly until the last student left the room, then took a big sip of water. She had to pace herself; she’d be speaking to students until 11:30 and it wasn’t even 9.
“It’s a tough room to work,” she said as she waited for the next class to file in. On Oct. 25, Amundsen, a Democrat who has been representing much of the Mount Vernon area in the House of Delegates since 1999, was making her annual trip to Carl Sandburg Middle School, part of a program sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures. She said that involving youth in the political process has been one of her priorities since entering office. But it isn’t easy.
“Kids will say government doesn’t matter. It’s boring. It doesn’t have anything to with me,” Amundsen said. “The main thing that I always hope kids get is that government does affect their lives. Which is why I hope they pay attention to it and, when they get old enough, participate.” She added that too many people see politics as a spectator sport. “If you’re sitting on the sidelines, you’re not participating in the decisions that affect your life.”
But to convince students to engage with politics for a lifetime, Amundsen must first convince them to engage with her for 50 minutes. And commanding the attention of a roomful of eighth-graders requires more energy than Amundsen usually has to muster for her audiences, “by several orders of magnitude,” she said with a grin.
“With kids there’s no pretense – If you’re boring, man, you’re in trouble. So when they ask questions, you know you’re getting through.”
And when students do participate, Amundsen said, the interaction is inspirational. “They ask insightful questions. It’s always energizing to be around them.”
Sandburg Principal Wendy Eaton said her students can also be inspired by interacting with an elected official. “It’s always good for the children to get some first hand knowledge and actually hear from a person who’s in the field,” she said, adding that Amundsen is particularly good at the exchange. “She really speaks to them at a level that makes it understandable.”
AMUNDSEN WAS READY when the second round of students rolled in. She convinced most of the skeptical front-runners that yes, they should sit in the front row, then began the discussion by mimicking the monotone delivery of the archetypal, chalk-dusted teacher, “We have three levels of government…”
She quickly changed course by asking students to describe the beginning of their day. As the different elements emerged, she listed them in columns on the blackboard: school buses, roads, teachers, lunch, standardized tests. “These are all ways that things that happen at the state, local and federal level really do have an impact on your lives,” she explained.
When she began taking questions, arms shot up across the auditorium and fingers urgently waved. The first questioner had heard there would be less money from the state for schools, and could mean a shortage of things like textbooks. Amundsen replied that the elimination of sales tax on food meant the state had less money to help schools, but a “math mistake” by a government accountant that created an unexpected budget shortfall for Fairfax schools would be fixed. “There’s a lesson why you need to check your work before you turn in a paper.”
“There’s nothing more contentious than how to fix school boundary lines,” Amundsen said when asked why children who lived next door to Sandburg took the bus to Walt Whitman Middle School. “It turns neighbors in Montagues and Capulets.”
Responding to a question about issues in the legislature, Amundsen asked who was alive in 1986, the last time gas taxes were raised. Only teachers raised their hands.
Jack Edgar asked Amundsen what she was doing to fix traffic problems. She listed several stop signs and speed bumps in the neighborhood (“We’re supposed to call them ‘traffic-calming measures,’ but they’re bumps”). After the questions were over, Edgar said he was satisfied with Amundsen’s answer. “Her Web site said she was going to fix traffic stuff and I was just wondering what she was doing.”
“When a student asked her why she ran for office, Amundsen replied, “I never planned to do this. I was a kindergarten volunteer and things got out of hand.” Outraged that her daughter’s school, Belle View Elementary, was being bypassed for renovations, Amundsen began attending school board meetings. In 1991, she herself became a school board member after District Supervisor Gerry Hyland appointed her. She later had to run for the seat and won. In 1999, “done” with the stress of serving on the school board, Amundsen successfully ran for the General Assembly.
“Here’s my life lesson for all of you. When you say ‘That’s terrible, someone ought to do something about it,’ who ends up doing something about it?”
The replies came back from all over the room, “You.”
WHEN ASKED ABOUT VIRGINIA’S senatorial race between James Webb and George Allen, Amundsen referred to “the great genius and miracle of this country:” that Webb or Allen could be elected by the narrowest margin on Nov. 7, and that sweeping changes of power might take place in Congress, “but on the next day, the government is going to go on. There won’t be tanks in the streets. There will still be money coming to Fairfax for schools and roads.”
Later she described herself as being among the state’s “citizen legislators. The deal is, you pass laws then you go home and live under them. And I think that makes a great deal of sense.”
One of the final questions for Amundsen caught her off guard. “What was your first protest?” a student asked.
Amundsen paused for a moment, then smiled. “I grew up in the 1960s and we had a war then — what an interesting question!” She went on to say she participated in her first protest along with classmates and faculty at McAlister College in Minnesota against a landlord in Chicago who denied an apartment to a black couple. “I guess I probably got the bug then.”
Eaton said she thought her students’ generation, the “Millenniums,” might be the one to break the stereotype of the disengaged and jaded youth. “I see a generation that’s very interested in learning how they can influence their community,” she said.
As the eight-graders filed out after the buzzer sounded at 9:40, Amundsen was content to have kept most of them interested for 50 minutes. She reported overhearing one student say, “She’s not that boring.”
“So I’m guessing things must have been okay.”